The Fallacy of Ritual

Amos 8
1 Thus the Lord GOD showed me, and behold, there was a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, “What do you see, Amos?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come for My people Israel. I will spare them no longer. 3 “The songs of the palace will turn to wailing in that day,” declares the Lord GOD. “Many will be the corpses; in every place they will cast them forth in silence.” 4 Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, 5 saying, “When will the new moon be over, So that we may sell grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales, 6 So as to buy the helpless for money And the needy for a pair of sandals, And that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?” 7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob, “Indeed, I will never forget any of their deeds. 8 “Because of this will not the land quake And everyone who dwells in it mourn? Indeed, all of it will rise up like the Nile, And it will be tossed about And subside like the Nile of Egypt. 9 “It will come about in that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “That I will make the sun go down at noon And make the earth dark in broad daylight. 10 “Then I will turn your festivals into mourning And all your songs into lamentation; And I will bring sackcloth on everyone’s loins And baldness on every head. And I will make it like a time of mourning for an only son, And the end of it will be like a bitter day. 11 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the LORD. 12 “People will stagger from sea to sea And from the north even to the east; They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, But they will not find it. 13 “In that day the beautiful virgins And the young men will faint from thirst. 14 “As for those who swear by the guilt of Samaria, Who say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’ And, ‘As the way of Beersheba lives,’ They will fall and not rise again.”

The comparison of summer fruit alludes to a short lifespan, just in case you were wondering. Now, on to the good stuff.  As I continue to study the scriptures, I learn that God isn’t so much concerned with what we do as much as He is why we do it.  We read here that Israel was still following their customs of Sabbath and holidays, but instead of using those times to take reverence in God, they were simply doing them out of tradition with their minds focused on something else.  Furthermore, what their minds were set on dishonored God; this is not a coincidence.  The author of Hebrews revealed the importance of staying focused on why we do what we do in chapter 13:

5 Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, "I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU," 6 so that we confidently say, "THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT WILL MAN DO TO ME?" 7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.

We see highlighted here that fearing man will lead to the love of money, but fearing God and maintaining our relationship with Him will help us keep a worry free life.  The rituals we create for our relationship with God are just things we do out of habit if we forget the meaning behind them.  I have a tendency to do this so I must continually change my rituals in order to not lose the heart of what I am doing.  It is easy for us to look at spiritual disciplines as something to check off our daily list instead of an opportunity to spend one-on-one time with God.  Why do you set aside time for prayer, bible study, meditation, or praise?  Whether it is going to church once a week or once a day, reading a 2-minute devotional or studying the scriptures for 3 hours each day, our ritual and spiritual disciplines need to be out of a desire to seek God and His righteousness.

Certainly, there are some days we have to force ourselves to do these things.  There are times we are tired or otherwise distracted and we choose to do these things more because we feel we have to instead of want to, but this is different than doing it just to go through the motions and look pious to fit into the crowd.  This same heart of lackadaisical faith and greediness was the same heart condition that caused them to turn into a capitalist society.  They were more concerned about how they can make more money instead of how they can grow closer to God and take care of each other.  Does this sound familiar?  In Luke 10, Jesus reveals this important Godly principle:

25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 And He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" 27 And he answered, "YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." 28 And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE." 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

To tie up today’s post I want to leave you with the answer to Jesus’ question.  The original Greek text uses the word plesion for “neighbor” which is translated culturally to mean, “According to the Jews, any member of the Hebrew nation and commonwealth according to Christ. Any other man irrespective of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we chance to meet.”  Our neighbor is anyone else with whom we come in contact.  How then, do you suppose, should we go about our day and what do you think might happen given what we read in Amos?


2 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Ritual

  1. Good thoughts. Since you asked what I think as a Methodist, I’ll answer through a particularly Methodist lens. (I have to preface what I say with the confession that I’m pretty uneducated when it comes to Amos, but I’ll still give it a shot.)

    I think the Methodist modification to what you said above would be to change your statement, “I learn that God isn’t so much concerned with what we do as much as He is why we do it” to say, “…God isn’t only concerned with what we do, but he is concerned both with what we do and why we do it.”

    It seems to me that this fits with Amos’ emphasis on justice, both in this passage, and–from what I remember–in the book overall. Justice for the poor and oppressed certainly isn’t only a matter of our hearts, but necessarily has to involve our actions. (Putting the emphasis mostly on the “why” to the neglect of what we’re actually doing would be to read other passages into this one–this is heavy on emphasis on what is and is not being done.)

    As he often did, Wesley sought to bring back to the center what had become an over-correction in his day. Whereas the Reformation brought with it a needed emphasis on interior faith as opposed to exterior works, the Wesleyan/Methodist insistence is on both. Either will die without the other, and both can enhance the other.

    An example of this is in Wesley’s interpretation of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. A normal Protestant interpretation of that is that Jesus meant that the pharisaical approach was only outward, but that Jesus wanted us to focus on the heart instead. Wesley claimed Jesus didn’t mean for us to focus on the heart instead, but in addition to. He went on to describe how, rather than laying aside the Pharisees’ emphasis on outward holiness, we need to attempt to match it, and then surpass it with the thorough, heart-included righteousness Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount.

    Your application to spiritual disciplines is good, and sounds like a good Methodist. 🙂 If we make the mistake of only focusing on the heart, it can be very tempting for us to leave behind disciplines when we no longer feel like we’re getting anything out of them. But when we look at heart/deeds as both/and rather than either/or, we’ll understand that the rituals we undertake via our bodies can and should enhance our heart/spirit’s devotion to God, and–of course–vice versa.

    1. That is some great insight! I appreciate your response and clarification of the importance on the balance between both aspects instead of focusing on just one! Thanks Daniel!

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